Thinking About Tomorrow

SARA ENGRAM

June 27, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

With benefit of hindsight, predictions of the future can be asource of entertainment. Fanciful visions of space machines can seem as quaint as zealots who predict the date the world will end.

But despite spectacular failures, the prediction business persists as it should. A vision of the future is essential to civilization. Most things we take for granted today were once just as fanciful and far-fetched as the wackiest sci-fi plot. Universal education, a pension system, democracy itself -- all of these were once merely the ramblings of wild-eyed dreamers. As their contemporary cousins point out, yesterday's utopia has become today's society.

But how do we tell the difference between wild-eyed dreamers and realistic visionaries, or between the kooks and the geniuses? Sometimes it's hard, which is what makes futurism both intriguing and exasperating. In Washington this week, futurists are gathering for the Seventh General Assembly and Exposition of the World Future Society.

Howard F. Didsbury Jr., the society's special projects director, likes to think of the meeting as a "world's fair of futurism" He's a veteran of these gatherings, having cultivated an interest in futurism some three decades ago. As a history professor in a New Jersey college, he began teaching courses on the impact of science and technology on human culture in the early 1960s.

That led him to think about ways of anticipating the impact of new technologies in order to ameliorate the harmful side-effects. Soon he encountered the work of the French futurist Bertrand de Jouvenel, whose book, "The Art of Conjecture," and journal "Futuribles" are cornerstones of the futurist movement in France.

Mr. Didsbury's course grew into a program for the study of the future, one of many such programs that sprang up during the '60s and '70s.

Futurism wasn't confined to campuses. Even the White House was eager to look ahead, and President Richard Nixon sponsored a conference looking at the industrial world of the future. A keynote speaker at that gathering was Herman Kahn, author of 1967 book "The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next 33 Years."

By 1980, however, the American people were perplexed and tired and ready for a collective nostalgia trip, a trend reflected in the precipitous decline of future-oriented courses on college campuses.

But now futurism seems poised for new popularity.

No doubt one reason for the renewed attention is the vast changes the world has seen with the fall of communism.

It also helps that a new, future-oriented administration includes a vice president who was an active participant in the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future and has spoken at World Future Society meetings.

Maybe it takes a historian to put these things in perspective, but Mr. Didsbury thinks the earlier popularity of futurism was tied to the nation's Bicentennial.

Looking back at the past often prompts the parallel urge to gaze forward into the future -- although, he notes, serious looks at the future were virtually absent from Bicentennial activities.

These days it's hard to avoid futurism in one form or another. The news is filled with urgent speculation and projections -- what happens if we don't act on the budget deficit; what happens is we act by raising taxes; what happens if we intervene in the Balkans; what happens if we don't.

Other stories discuss the ways our lives will be further changed by technology. The "information age" takes on new meaning with descriptions of the possibilities opened by the merging of computers and television.

But Mr. Didsbury cautions against equating fancy new technology with futurism. It's too easy, he says, to become complacent and assume that technology will solve our problems when, in fact, it often creates new ones.

Television is a prime example. It was hailed as a wonderful pTC educational tool -- which, of course, it often can be. But it is also blamed for killing the art of conversation and ruining reading habits.

Even for futurists technology is only a tool. As Mr. Didsbury notes, "There is an enormous amount of twaddle in educational circles about how technology will revolutionize education. But education always has and always will require the interaction of human beings."

His recommendation for a good, future-oriented education might surprise some: a traditional grounding in one's own family, community and society together with the ability to reach out and make contact with other societies -- and training in ways to sort through all the information that bombards us in the Information Age.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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